Regardless of where your travels might take you in this world (and if Sir Richard Branson is successful in his venture, any other) it’s always a good idea to read-up on your destination before you go. For travelling naturalists and wildlife photographers, such preliminary study is not just a good idea, it’s of paramount importance. That’s why, from the moment I confirmed that my trip to Panama was a “go,” I walked directly to my bookshelves and began taking down the volumes that I would need either to read in advance or to take with me on the journey.
First and foremost, even if you are travelling for the purpose of viewing or photographic wildlife, you will still be encountering people who call your destination home. If your travels have led you to a country other than the one in which you reside, you may find youself needing to understand customs (not to mention languages) with which you are not familiar. Therefore a good overview written by someone possessing extensive familiarity with your destination is essential. For my trip to Panama, I have in the past relied upon National Geographic Traveler: Panama by Christopher P. Baker (National Geographic). Long the gold standard when it comes to providing explanations of peoples and cultures to interested readers, Baker’s Panama volume does a fine job of maintaining that publisher’s well-deserved reputation. Beginning with a brief overview of Panamanian history followed by a section on the nation’s natural history, the remainder of the book is given over to a region by region commentary, pointing out places of both importance and interest, and as always richly augmented by superb photographs and maps (this is a National Geographic publication after all).
Next, if bird watching is to be your principle activity while in Panama, spending some time prior to your journey consulting George Angehr, Dodge Engleman, and Lorna Engleman’s A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama (Cornell University Press) will be time well spent indeed. A cornerstone of essential travel literature for bird watchers visiting Panama, this book contains a wealth of information and advice that will be of inestimable value in finding not only the best places to see birds while in the country and even provides helpful lists of the birds likely to be found in those areas. Of particular interest to more advanced bird watchers are the insider tips that can help to find those out-of-the-way locations that can provide the best views of some of the hard-to-see species that might otherwise be missed. Even if you are staying in such a world-famous bird-watching lodge such as Canopy Tower and are exploring under the masterful leadership of their expert guides, A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama will help you to discover the essentials about the areas in which you will be watching birds so that you might consult your field guides prior to your trip to study the significant potential species to be seen. As the book contains driving directions and accessibility information, those venturing through Panama on their own are very much advised to take a copy of the book along with them on their journey.
This then brings up the topic of field guides that explain and depict the birds of Panama. The principle guide for the country has long been Robert S. Ridgely and John A. Gwynne Jr.’s A Guide To the Birds of Panama, with Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras (Princeton University Press). Now in its second edition, this massive tome provides extensive information on just about everything that the bird watcher visiting Panama would wish to know about the birds that make the area either their part of full-time home. In addition to the basic format by which information on each species’ description, similar species, status and distribution, and range are presented, entries on many species also include important and useful information about that species’ habits (crucial information, to be sure, for all photographers wanting to set up a shot in advance). Illustrations of many of the species discussed in the text are provided in centrally located color plates with additional black and white drawings interspersed among the text itself. Unfortunately, this book does not include any range maps so all geographic references must be extracted from the information presented in the individual species profiles. It is also quite large (534 pages on heavy stock paper) and thus not ideal for carrying on the field. Thus while it is virtually without peer in terms of the information it can provide about the birds to be seen in Panama, a smaller, more visually-oriented guide for carrying into the field should also be acquired for the trip.
When it comes to visually-oriented field guides to popular bird and wildlife watching locations throughout the world, few can reasonably claim to do better than the Princeton Illustrated Checklists, which is why I wouldn’t think of visiting Panama without this series’ volume covering the Birds of Mexico and Central America (Princeton University Press) by Ber Van Perlo. Superbly designed to present as much visual information about the species included in as small and portable a format as possible, Van Perlo is able to cover the more than 1,500 bird species occurring in Central America within a remarkable 98 full color plates. Textual information is kept to a minimum – only the most essential points that would be needed in the field are included to save space. In addition, the last portion of the guide is devoted entirely to range and distribution maps. Now admittedly, fitting all this information in to a 336 page book printed on the high quality of paper stock suitable for the full color depiction of some of the world’s most vibrantly colored birds, and keeping it to a length and width that allow it to be carried comfortably in a field vest pocket did require a little shrinking of both the individual bird images as well as the maps. However, most anyone going into the field with an intended purpose that warrants carrying this book will certainly have either a small magnifying glass, or a binocular that can be turned upside down to serve as a field macroscope, on hand should it occassionally be found necessary to get a more detailed look at either an illustration or a map that is just a little too small to be viewed comfortably with the unaided eye. A small price to ask, really, for the capability to instantly reference each and every bird you might possible see in any of the bird-rich countries covered by the book. Needless to write – this book will be a constant companion to me while I am in Panama.
Finally, for those who really want to “go deeper” in pursuit of an understanding of the natural history not only of Panama itself but of the tropics in general, two books in particular are recommended. The first is a work that if it is not already a classic of natural history then it is certainly on its way to becoming so. In such high regard is it held that the American Birding Association’s Birders’ Exchange program published a Spanish translation of it in 2007 and has since distributed thousands of copies throughout Latin America in an effort to help enlighten the local residents there about their respective region’s biological systems and importance thereof to the world. I mean, of course, John Kricher’s A Neotropical Companion: An Introduction to the Animals, Plants, and Ecosystems of the New World Tropics (Second Edition) (Princeton University Press) From the plants and animals to the geography and climate of the tropical band between North and South America, Kricher’s book covers it all in a manner that is as applicable to those just approaching the natural history of the area for the first time as it is to seasoned biologists seeking commentary on this fascinating region of the world.
Then, if your wish is to expand the horizon of the subject to all the tropical areas of the world, Marco Lambertini’s A Naturalist’s Guide to the Tropics (translated by John Venerella and published by The University of Chicago Press) is an absolute must-read. I took this book with me on my first visit to Panama and I’m bringing it along once again for reading on the flight as well as for a “before bed” read while in the country. Lambertini, the Chief Executive of BirdLife International, takes the largest possible view of his subject in the book and in so doing enlightens the reader not simply about the tropical regions of one particular geographic area but explains how tropical regions throughout the world hold certain similarities to one another that make them both extraordinarily rich in diversity of life and extraordinarily ecologically fragile. Replete with helpful illustrations (both black and white as well as color), maps, diagrams, charts, and tables, this book provides an wonderful overview of tropical natural history for the interested amateur as well as enlightening reading for the professional who may not previously have considered the subject on so large a scale, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Tropics has been one of my favorite natural history books since I first read it some years ago (it was originally published in 2000) and I look forward to another reading of it filling my hours in the air during the trip.